Six short weeks ago, Michigan State ended Wisconsin’s unbeaten dreams with a last-play Hail Mary that shocked the Badgers, 37-31. Saturday night, the two sides are meeting again with the Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl berth on the line.
The No. 13 Spartans and No. 15 Badgers both came to Indianapolis with 10-2 records and riding four-game winning streaks. Both have superb senior quarterbacks in Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson and Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins. Both also have capable defenses allowing just 15 points a game.
After two entertaining and riveting, yet hard-fought quarters, here are five things Michigan State must do to stay in the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin.
1. Stop Montee Ball
Ball ran for 115 yards and one touchdown against the Spartans in October. And with defensive end William Gholston back in the lineup—he was suspended for the teams’ first matchup—Michigan State has generally been great against the run and is 11th in the FBS giving up just 102.5 yards per game.
But the Spartans front seven is getting gashed so far. Ball had 105 yards and two scores in the first quarter and has continued to rack up yardage in the second. Maybe it means calling some run blitzes and stacking the line a bit more. There’s no guarantee it’ll work, but it couldn’t hurt.
The Spartans did a better job in the second quarter, but if there continues to be no catching Ball, State is going to struggle to stop the Wisconsin offense. Period.
2. Stop Montee Ball
This deserves to be both No. 1 and No. 2.
Seriously. If Montee Ball continues to look like Barry Sanders out there, the Badgers will score 60 points tonight.
But they did a much better job against Ball in the second quarter, and Wisconsin didn't move the ball with nearly as much ease. Keep Ball in control, and Michigan State can take over this game.
3. Contain Russell Wilson
Of course, the Badgers could score 60 points without Montee Ball because of their talented quarterback.
Wilson wasn’t asked to do that much in the first half because of Ball’s rampant runs through the Sparty defense. But Wilson’s athleticism and accuracy can move the ball for the Badgers.
Michigan State has to do something to stop the Wisconsin offense, and if they can continue to put some pressure on Wilson, that will continue to keep the Badgers in check.
4. Block, Block, Block, Block, Block
Wisconsin may have the more highly touted runner in Montee Ball and Michigan State might be 12th in the Big Ten in rushing, but the Spartans have two excellent backs of their own in big sophomore Le'Veon Bell (794 yards, 10 touchdowns entering the game) and junior Edwin Baker (624 yards, 4 touchdowns).
Bell broke a huge 26-yard gainer on the Spartans’ first drive and Baker finished off the drive with an eight-yard scamper for a score.
If Bell and Baker can keep racking up yardage, they’re going to make life considerably easier for veteran Kirk Cousins, and Michigan State should have no trouble continuing to move the ball.
5. Make a Big Play on Special Teams
Wisconsin has struggled all season on kick- and punt-return coverage, giving its opponents valuable yardage via the return game.
What happened on Michigan State’s first return of the game? Nick Hill got great blocking, broke a tackle and returned the kick 39 yards to the Sparties’ 41. They went on to score a touchdown.
Hill fumbled his next kick return and it was recovered by Wisconsin. Two plays later, the Badgers turned it into a touchdown of their own.
In a game where the two teams are rather even and it appears it could turn into a shootout, one game-changer on special teams could end up making a huge difference.
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